Marawi declared free from militants

The Philippines’ military vows no letup in hunting down and destroying extremist groups loyal to Islamic State, saying Marawi City would be retaken within days after the pivotal killing of two top rebel commanders.
Philippine soldiers in the devastated city of Marawi yesterday. Half of Marawi lies in ruins and more than 1,000 militants, government troops and civilians have been killed, while about 400,000 people have been displaced.
Philippine soldiers in the devastated city of Marawi yesterday. Half of Marawi lies in ruins and more than 1,000 militants, government troops and civilians have been killed, while about 400,000 people have been displaced.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Duterte signals start of rehabilitation, but mopping-up ops continue

President Rodrigo Duterte has declared Marawi free from terrorists, even as security forces are fighting to dislodge a pocket of militants entrenched in the heart of the city.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I hereby declare Marawi City liberated from the terrorists' influence. That marks the beginning of rehabilitation," Mr Duterte said yesterday as he rallied rain-soaked soldiers amid sounds of distant gunfire and explosions.

Later, at an event in another city, he acknowledged that while "we've restored peace, that's not a cause for celebration". "We've destroyed a city, which I admit we had to do... I can only extend my apologies to the people of Marawi," he said.

On Monday, elite army units killed Isnilon Hapilon, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's (ISIS) top man in South-east Asia, who had plotted the attack on Marawi.

Also killed was Omarkhayam Maute, who with his brother, Abdullah, formed the group that provided the bulk of fighters who stormed Marawi on May 23, and held parts of it for nearly five months.

More than 1,000 militants, government troops and civilians have been killed and about 400,000 people displaced. Half of Marawi lies in ruins, levelled by air raids, artillery barrages and fierce urban fighting.

FREE AT LAST

Ladies and gentlemen, I hereby declare Marawi City liberated from the terrorists' influence. That marks the beginning of rehabilitation... We've destroyed a city, which I admit we had to do... I can only extend my apologies to the people of Marawi.

PHILIPPINE PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTE

After Mr Duterte spoke in Marawi, military chief Eduardo Ano clarified that with only 20 to 30 militants still fighting, the situation in Marawi "can now be considered a law enforcement matter".

"What remains now is mopping-up operations against... stragglers in a small area. We can now begin the next phase - damage assessment, which is part of rehabilitation and reconstruction," General Ano said. But he could not say how soon the city's displaced residents would be able to return.

Colonel Romeo Brawner, head of Task Force Ranao, said Marawi's 200,000 residents, mostly Muslims from an ethnic group known as Maranaos, would have to wait.

"My message to Maranaos is: Please be patient. We will have to clear the area before you can be allowed to return. We will make sure there are no remaining (militants), stragglers or unexploded ordnance left behind," he said.

Marawi Mayor Usman Gandamra expects the fighting to end in a day or two. But the "mistrust and division" that the conflict has created will take far longer to fix, he said.

Political analyst Richard Heydarian said security forces should brace themselves for more daring attacks as ISIS will "try its best to show it's still alive and kicking". "You can imagine what kind of things they will be thinking about to send that message across," he warned.

Security officials said the hunt for top terrorists behind the Marawi siege has shifted to Mahmud Ahmad, a Malaysian and former university lecturer who is believed to have taken the helm of ISIS' South-east Asia wing after Hapilon's death. But military spokesman Restituto Padilla insisted that Mahmud does not pose as great a threat as Hapilon did.

"He is an academic. He is not a fighter. His experience in fighting is not as expansive as Hapilon's or Omar's. His ability to lead the fight is not there," he said.

Mahmud and slain Indonesian militant Bahrumsyah, who headed Katibah Nusantara - an ISIS combat unit in Syria comprising mostly fighters from South-east Asia - funded the Marawi attack, according to the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict. They also recruited fighters for the audacious bid to seize Marawi and claim it as an ISIS "province".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 18, 2017, with the headline 'Marawi declared free from militants'. Print Edition | Subscribe